Young Adults’ Experiences of Depression in the U.S.

Getting professional help for depression

Most people we interviewed had gotten professional help at some point for symptoms of depression. Some began by seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor. For others a family doctor, obstetrician, or another medical specialist was the first professional they encountered. A few people began treatment at a hospital, juvenile treatment facility, or prison. 

Regardless of what kind of contact with professionals came first, most people remember the act of getting formal help as a distinct moment in the overall trajectory of their depression experiences. This summary explores what it was like to first seek and get care from professionals – including experiences receiving a depression diagnosis. We have also included experiences of those who decided not to get professional help.

Reasons for seeking help

People’s stories about first getting help vary, but many include the realization that things will not simply get better on their own and that the status quo is no longer sustainable. As Shayne put it, “I think I just had to screw up a bunch and learn the hard way that I needed more help than I was willing to get.” Pete says it took him a long time to seek therapy for his depression because “In all honesty I am a very prideful person, so for a while I was too proud to admit…” needing help.
A number of people described specific events which catapulted them towards professional care, such as proximity to someone else’s actual or attempted suicide; crisis created by the death of a family member; pregnancy; or post-partum experiences of depression. Some realized they needed help when they began doing poorly in high school or college: Natasha, for example, says she was so shaken by failing a class after “never fail[ing] anything before” that she finally went to see a psychiatrist. For others, first visits to professionals were arranged by parents, teachers, or the foster care system. A couple of people sought help for another problem, such as self-harming or an eating disorder, and then began getting treatment for depression too. (For more, see ‘Depression and self-harming’ and ‘Depression and eating disorders’.)In addition to the “push” to seek help created by the realization that things are bad and getting worse, some people experienced a “pull” towards help. For many, that pull was loving encouragement from friends or family. For others it was wanting to excel at something they love, like the arts or school. (See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’).
First experiences with care

People recall their first encounters with professionals in very different ways. Some connected right away with a doctor, therapist, or counselor and felt an immediate sense of relief. Joey, for example, said “I lucked out. The doctor I had was very like person oriented, very specific to me.” Ryan described the first visit as being “finally able to open the flood gate.” 

Other people found it hard to relate to or accept help from the first professionals they encountered. Jeremy says he felt the whole thing was “somewhat forced” since it was his parents’ idea that he see a psychologist in the first place. For Crystal, engagement with a school psychologist felt “extremely intrusive” in the beginning – like someone was “coming into my own personal stuff… and this is just way too much.” Several people said their first therapist “wasn’t a good fit” or was “awful,” or that the first professional they saw did not handle the question of medication well.
Many people noted that looking back, they wish they had gotten help sooner. In Meghan’s words, “I finally did reach out and get help and that was the best decision I ever made. Because I feel so much better now…. I should have done it way sooner.” Colin says “I waited far too long to actually seek any professional help, because I thought I’d feel judged or like it wasn’t bad enough… a lot of things could have been avoided had I just had someone to talk to sooner.”
(Also see ‘Therapy and counseling for depression’ and ‘Depression, medication and treatment choices’)

Getting a diagnosis of depression 

Most people we interviewed received a clinical diagnosis of depression. Some people got their diagnosis through high school or college health services. Others were diagnosed by doctors or therapists they saw privately, or in group homes, hospitals, or through evaluations in the foster care system.

Reactions to the diagnosis of depression varied significantly. Some felt the diagnosis suggested something manageable: in Joey’s words, “It’s like, there’s actually a name to it and there’s actual ways you can go from feeling here to feeling over here… It was a relief…. It was like, ok. You can do this. Move along now.” While others found it difficult to absorb or accept the diagnosis. Sara’s response was “I didn’t even want to believe that I had postpartum depression, because I didn’t like the definition of it. I didn’t like what they said about it.” Julia said she was not okay with the words “depression” and “eating disorders” when she first heard them, and even years later “it’s still very hard for me to accept these… diagnoses.” Casey felt like being diagnosed meant depression was something he’d have to “deal with forever maybe.”
Not wanting an official diagnosis

Several people we interviewed self-identified as having depression, but explicitly avoided getting an official diagnosis. Jeremy was concerned that black people are often mis-diagnosed or mis-understood by professionals. Nadina wanted to focus on alternative therapies and stay away from labels. Tia met with two different doctors who wanted to treat her depression and offered to prescribe medication, but she did not proceed with either because she did not want a depression diagnosis documented in her medical chart.
See also ‘Going public with depression?’, ‘Depression and feeling different when young’, ‘Therapy and counseling’, ‘Depression, medication, and treatment choices’, ‘Depression and school’, ‘Depression and transitions to adulthood’, and ‘Barriers to care’.
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